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13 December, 2013

End of the age of heroism

BRP Bhaskar
Gulf Today

The glory is departed. Nelson Mandela, the last of the titans, has taken his bow, and the curtain has come down on the Age of Heroism.

As Europeans acquired colonies elsewhere, the seeds of destruction of the new order they were building also began to sprout. The biggest of the empires, which boasted the sun never sets on it, collapsed like a house of cards after World War II, and all the rest fell like ninepins.

The epic struggles against colonialism which Asia and Africa witnessed threw up a host of heroes who were imbued with high ideals and ready to make high sacrifices. Some of them are unknown outside their own lands, like Jose Rizal of the Philippines, the first country to come under foreign rule and also the first to gain freedom. Some of them achieved fame globally, like Mohandas Karamchand Gandhi of India, whom blacks in South Africa and the United States hailed as a source of inspiration.

Mandela was the most feted of the heroes. In all history no one received as much adulation in his lifetime worldwide as he did. The US gave him the Presidential Medal of Freedom, the Soviet Union the Order of Lenin and India its highest civilian award, Bharat Ratna (Jewel of India), as well as Peace prizes bearing the names of Gandhi and Jawaharlal Nehru. The Nobel Peace Prize capped it all.

Since 2009, at the instance of the United Nations, July 18, his birthday is celebrated annually as Nelson Mandela International Day to spread the message that each individual has the power to transform the world and the ability to make an impact.

Gandhi’s campaigns in South Africa were on behalf of the country’s small immigrant Indian population. His only contact with the blacks was as the leader of an ambulance corps during the Zulu rebellion. He had offered its services to the regime, but it advised him to work among the tribesmen who badly needed help. When the blacks set up a political forum they named it the African National Congress, after the Indian outfit which Gandhi was to lead on his return home.

Mandela acknowledged Gandhi as his guide but to call him the Mahatma of our time is to belittle both. They were not similarly placed. Each charted his course differently in the light of circumstances.

Mandela and several other African leaders were pitted not against foreign rulers but against white settlers who ran racist regimes. In his own words, he followed the Gandhian strategy as long as he could but there came a point when the brute force of the oppressor could not be countered through passive resistance alone, and a military dimension was added to the struggle.

When the struggle demanded sacrifices, Mandela gave without stint. As he remained behind bars for more than a quarter-century the worldwide anti-apartheid movement kept his memory alive in the public mind. When the crumbling regime freed him, he emerged with a halo which remained till the end.   

Elected president in the first multiracial election in 1994, he donned the mantle of statesman with the same verve he had displayed earlier as a boxer and as commander of Umkhonto we Sizwe, the ANC’s military wing. He dismantled the apartheid system and re-wrote the laws which had kept the blacks, who constitute three-fourths of the population, in bondage.

In 1955, the ANC, in its Freedom Charter, had declared that South Africa belongs to “all who live in it, black and white, and that no government can justly claim authority unless it is based on the will of all the people.” As Nobel Prize winning novelist Nadine Gordimer has observed, suffering made him not vengeful but more human. On assuming power, he set up the Truth and Reconciliation Commission to gather evidence from both victims and perpetrators of past violence as part of a process of restorative justice. Canada has now constituted a similar body. It is an example other countries with a history of violence can follow.

Mandela inherited an economy which had been wrecked by racist policies and was marked by the most unequal distribution of income in the world. He revived it and raised the growth rate to five per cent before stepping down as president after just one term to facilitate smooth democratic transition. The incurable romantic watched from the sidelines, with a new wife, his third, as his colleagues carried on as well as they could.

President Obama was right when he observed we are unlikely to see the likes of Mandela again. Mandela was the answer to the yearning of an age which has ended. When in the fulness of time the inequities of the new order become pronounced, new heroes may be called for and they will in all probability come up. -- Gulf Today, Sharjah, December 13, 2013.

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